How much do you know?

I always wanted to know more— perhaps even become an expert— in all things Jewish. When the Jewish tradition is something you want to learn, what’s the obvious choice? Go to rabbinical school and become a rabbi! And so I did. I entered a graduate level institution and specialized in all things Jewish. One would think that I would then have become an expert and learned everything. But then one would be wrong. The more I learned, the more I realized I did not know. We learned soon after beginning our studies that HUC (Hebrew Union College) would not be teaching us all the answers. We would not even be learning all the questions. Rather, they would teach us how to ask those questions, and where to begin looking for those answers. For anyone who has been in my office, you’ll have seen my many shelves of books wherein lies some of those answers. And I’ll let you in on a secret: I do not know most of what’s in those books. That’s why I keep them around!

I spoke on the High Holidays about the importance of saying “I don’t know.” Too often we are expected to know our fields, even when we’ve been thrust into a job (employment or volunteer) without being adequately prepared. This “I must know” culture is so pervasive that we have internalized it, dubbing ourselves experts in all things in which we participate or have read a little bit about online. To add to this unfortunate cultural expectation, we also live in an age of overabundant information, via the internet, which means that we can make ourselves feel that we know all that is on a subject simply by using Google! As though there is no need any more for guided critical learning from a master(s) of any given area.

The Talmud, in discussing why God might have chosen to show up to Moses in a burning bush, rather than something more exotic, teaches us that it was not because the bush was tall, as it wasn’t, nor that it was majestic and beautiful, because bushes typically are not; the bush was chosen because it was lowly. It is the humble—those who leave room above—who receive God’s presence. Indeed, what is the descriptor most used for Moses? Moses the great? Moses the wise? Moses the fighter (à la Ridley Scott)? Moses the prince? Nope. It’s Moses the humble. It’s right there in Numbers 12:3. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” We’re taught that it was his humility— his openness to doubt, his lack of ego, his mental cup ready to be filled—that qualified him to be the ultimate of prophets.

Humility is venerated by our tradition. Without it, we remain static and will ultimately fall. With it, we grow, flourish, make room for others, and God.

Over these days of the Omer, between Pesach and Shavuot, Jews go through a deep period of introspection.  They reflect on where they have room for growth, and they work to get there and be ready to once again receive Torah. Let’s assume that we could all grow a little more and learn a lot more. May the days of the Omer help us find this growth and learning, even if the end result is the simple realization of how little we have learned.

Check out Rabbi Karyn Kedar’s Omer: A Counting, available on Amazon, or the CCAR iOS app “Omer (a counting)” as a helpful resource in this journey.


Published in Temple Emanu-El’s May 2016 edition of Kolaynu.

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davidzvaisberg Written by:

David Vaisberg, originally from Montreal and Mississauga, Canada, serves as Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El of Edison, NJ and lives in Metuchen, NJ with his family.

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